The "Lean In" Approach To Equal Pay

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
Sometimes discussions (or debates) about the gender pay gap can skip so fast to a rallying cry that it's easy to forget the obvious impact: Unequal standing equals less money in women's pockets.
So in honor of Equal Pay Day, has launched #20PercentCounts, a campaign that highlights the gender pay gap with 20% discounts at businesses in 25 cities across the country and online. Below, Rachel Thomas, the president of Lean In, explains how the organization's Circles community mobilized to make the campaign happen, why men need to get in the conversation, and other policies that go hand-in-hand with equal pay.
When did Lean In start discussing the idea for this initiative — and when did it become an issue of urgency for you?
"The spark for the whole campaign came in from our Lean In D.C. chapter. We run a program called Circles, which are small groups of women who get together on a regular basis to support one another. Lean In D.C. is a chapter [made up] of about 30 Circles in the D.C. area, and a couple of years ago, they started going door-to-door to local businesses and asking them to give discounts commensurate with the pay gap, which was [about] 23% when they started — and, sadly, it hasn’t moved that much. Their action got some local media [attention] and was really energizing to women who participated, and it was also a great opportunity for consumers to walk into their local bagel shop or pet goods store, learn about the pay gap, and then get a discount that hopefully made it memorable for them.
"We thought it was a great idea, so last summer, we started to talk to our Circles community and see if they were up for taking it on the road and making it larger than just D.C. They immediately jumped on board, and we have 25 cities participating. The women [in these cities] are sending emails to local businesses, going door-to-door, and we've given the businesses signage so that when customers see it, they’ll understand how it all fits together. We also have a ticker and see when different businesses are being added and signed up, so it really felt very grassroots."
Something that Sheryl Sandberg has mentioned and that I know Lean In discusses often is men getting involved. Obviously it's great that women are advocating for themselves, but how do you envision men getting in on this conversation? Because issues of equal pay affect men and families, too.
"That’s a great question. We’re offering the discount to women and men to pull them into the conversation because you’re right; equal pay is bigger than just a women’s issue. If women are paid less, that means families are earning less. That has an impact on men, and it has a big impact on the economy. We know that if we closed the pay gap, we’d add over a half-trillion dollars in income to the U.S. economy. So the campaign certainly starts with public awareness, but it is also about taking action.
"We want make sure that the right laws are in place and that they’re being upheld. We need a higher minimum wage in the United States. It’s far too low, and as you probably know, women — who are two-thirds of minimum wage earners — are much more impacted by the low minimum wage. We need businesses to do their part; many businesses are still run by men, so they have a very important role to play in auditing compensation internally and making sure that people are paid fairly, whether it’s based on gender or race, and making corrections if they need to. And we think individuals have a role to play here as well. We know from research that women are negotiating as often as men now, which is just fantastic, but we also know they face pushback when they do."

if we closed the pay gap, we’d add over a half-trillion dollars in income to the U.S. economy.

Rachel Thomas
The phrase “lean in” has become such a cultural touchpoint. What are some issues that Lean In has taken under its wing recently or become more fired up about over time?
"One of the things that we focus on a lot on is our annual 'Women in the Workplace' study to really understand what’s happening to women in companies across the country, and why there are still few women in leadership roles. Our community is really passionate about the findings every year, because they’re helpful to women themselves for things that they can do to advance their careers. The study also gives organizations a road map for policy or program changes that they can make to better support women. In 2016, two-thirds of the companies that participated are making a change internally based on the input, so we think that’s driving real change.
"We’ve also been very public about paid family leave. We need more paid family leave for women and men so that they can better balance demands of work and home."
For you personally, what has been a recent initiative or win that you feel proud of?
"'Women in the Workplace' is really my pet project. If we’re going to get more women into leadership, we need to get more women at the top of organizations — but not just at the top. We need women at every level of organizations, getting the tools that they need to advance. We know it’s still not an even playing field for women, and we know lots of changes need to be made for them to advance at the same rate that men do.
Participation from companies has gotten larger every year, and we think the data is really valuable. For a lot of those companies, this is the only opportunity that they have to benchmark it’s data that makes a really big difference. In addition, our Getty Collection has been out for a couple years and has grown to over 10,000 images; it’s been used in over 100 countries around the world and is really changing the depiction of women."
What are some of the best ways you’ve found to bring different groups of women together, whether that’s along economic lines, racial lines, levels of achievement in the workplace, or elsewhere?
"Fundamentally, I think a lot of it starts with getting to know people personally. That’s a lot of why I think the Circles community is so powerful; these are women coming together on a regular basis, talking things through, practicing new skills, and creating very strong bonds. I definitely think a lot of progress comes from people standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
"But I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. We need institutional change, and part of this campaign is making sure that policymakers are putting the right policies in place... We need businesses to take a stand on equal pay and audit their internal pay. And we often say that 'lean in' is about individual change, and understanding the small things that have an impact on women’s lives, such as shining a light on stereotypes and gender bias. A lot of that comes down to interpersonal relationships and having an understanding of bias. So I don’t think there’s any easy answer, but a lot of organizations like Lean In are attacking the issue from different perspectives, and I think that’s so valuable."
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